It was about 5 in the afternoon last June 11, when Robert Thate stopped by Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly, Md., where his infant son, Jeremiah, was battling viral pneumonia. For several days Robert's wife, Theresa, had been staying at the hospital to be near the 3-week-old boy. Now, Robert joined her at Jeremiah's bedside and suggested they get a bite to eat. Both parents felt anxious about leaving the baby, but, reassured by a nurse that the child would be fine, they went down to the hospital canteen. When the Thates came back 20 minutes later, the crib was empty, and Jeremiah's cleanly cut intravenous tube lay on the floor in a spreading pool of fluid. As the Thates rushed toward the nurse's station, the horror of what had happened was already apparent: Jeremiah had been stolen.

Nearly five months later the pain and anguish still register on their faces as the Thates relive those terrifying moments and the tortured weeks that followed. But there is also joy in the Thate household because, miraculously, Jeremiah came home last month to be reunited with his parents, his sister, Jessica, 3, and brother Patrick, 2. On Oct. 28, after a tip from a Washington, D.C., fireman, the baby, who is white, was recovered from a tenement in Southeast Washington, where two black women were raising him as their own. The 18-lb. baby stank but was fully recovered from his pneumonia and in robust health, with nothing more than a severe diaper rash and a case of infant acne to show for his experience. Footprints and a blood test established conclusively that the child was Jeremiah Thate.

"It was a long-awaited day," says Robert, who had seen his family nearly destroyed by the abduction and its aftermath. Immediately after the kidnapping, there had been a crush of publicity. "We did six television interviews in one day," says Robert. "I did it purposely so I wouldn't have to deal with my emotions." Then came the crackpot calls threatening the other Thate children. Meanwhile the FBI made Robert take lie detector tests as they pursued the investigation. "It made what we were going through a thousand times worse," he says.

As for Theresa, there were days when she simply couldn't function, she says. "I would sit on the couch and stare. My kids would be around asking questions, and I would say, 'Leave me alone.' The worst times were the evenings. I would always wait until I was ready to drop to go to bed. There were times when I'd just cry and cry and cry." When that happened she would slip out of the bedroom to sob quietly on the sofa. Robert would come out and hold her all night, struggling to keep his feelings in check. "I chose to cry in the bathroom when I was alone," he says.

Occasionally the Thates were able to pour out their feelings to one another, but frequently a wall of tension would rise between them. Robert, who works as a cartographer for a civil engineering firm, took a two-month unpaid leave from his job soon after the kidnapping because he couldn't concentrate. He stayed home with Theresa, who had quit her job at a clothing store when they married four years ago, but they began to have loud arguments over trivialities. At one point they felt as if they might have to separate. "It was the greatest trial we've ever had as a couple, but if that didn't break us up, I don't know what else can," says Robert, who bought a punching bag and hung it in the dining room to vent his frustrations.

Both the Thates are born-again Christians. Robert prayed, but Theresa found it difficult. "It hurt too much, and I was trying to stay away from the hurt," she says. In her despair she fantasized about suicide, plotting how she might get drunk on a six-pack of beer, cover the kitchen floor with plastic garbage bags and slit her wrists with her best kitchen knife. "The thing that really kept me from doing it is that I have two other children," she says.

Shortly after Jeremiah was taken, police had a composite drawing made of a blond woman in a ponytail whom some hospital staff claimed to have seen in the ward. The Thates became obsessed with finding her. Theresa prowled a nearby shopping mall, and whenever she saw a blond with a baby, she would walk over and start a conversation, angling for a good look at the baby's face. Robert once sprinted four blocks to catch up with a blond woman pushing a baby carriage.

Then last month the Washington Post Magazine ran a moving story about the Thates. Firefighter Donald Derner had been thinking about the article the day he saw Linda Faye Stancil and her mother, Lillie Rose Baynes, standing with a white baby outside their decrepit building while a blaze was being extinguished inside. Instinctively he felt that this was the missing child. Derner called a hotline number printed in the Post magazine. But the police, inundated by new leads, didn't follow up for two weeks, even though a second, anonymous caller offered the same information. When they did finally visit Stancil's apartment, detectives found Jeremiah, as well as a stroller and some baby food, amid the empty vodka bottles and rat droppings.

Police now say that Stancil, 34, who told the police she'd recently suffered a miscarriage, snatched the child while visiting the hospital to apply for a job. Neither she nor her 50-year-old mother has a criminal record or a history of mental illness, though Stancil has been treated for alcoholism. Both women have been charged with kidnapping.

Child psychiatrists say Jeremiah was probably too young to suffer emotional harm from his abduction. He was perky when Derner met him recently, for the second time, on the set of Good Morning America. Theresa thanked the fireman but didn't offer to let him hold the child. "Mrs. Thate," he says with a smile, "is not letting go of that baby."

  • Contributors:
  • Andrea Pawlyna.